“Did I tell you I’m in love with your soul?”
It’s from our leasing agent. Picture-pretty, Cuban-Mexican, always made-up and buttoned-up. She uses a perky realtor voice that I soon learn hides both her sadness and her passion. She’s 36; I’m almost 50. She was a homecoming queen; I was a hippie girl.
Without thinking, I text back immediately: “I don’t know what that means, but I can’t stop thinking about you.”
When we met her, my almost-13-year-old son begged, “Please rent us this place. My mom and I really need to know where we’re gonna live.”
The Pasadena condo feels safe and spacious — soothing sage colors, empty, with promise — a fresh start. Maybe we’ll buy the condo and never have to move again. It’s walking distance from everywhere we need, including the Metro, three movie theatres, Vroman’s (one of the last standing and most inviting independent bookstores) and my office. It feels like a change, somehow more urban. We are gradually moving south, first from Northeast Pasadena, then from Northeast Los Angeles.
We‘re leaving “the family home” in the hills of Glassell Park — Glendale, Eagle Rock and Highland Park adjacent. This area will burst forth in gentrified hipster glory a couple years after we decamp from the embattled “big house.” The freshly remodeled Spanish-style house with bright colors and folkloric tile where our blended, “We Are the World” family — two moms, two kids, two dogs — was to reside. I had poured my heart into it — and the equity from my little house. College money … retirement savings — all gone.
When the realtor revealed that the last occupant committed suicide, I vowed to change the condo’s karma. This place could be our safe refuge; as we healed from my failed marriage, we’d put the ghost of the owners’ unhappy daughter to rest. I also had just been torn apart from my daughter — my stepdaughter, Raphael’s stepsister — the scorched-earth effect of our unblended family. Without her, I felt as if my arm had been cut off.
“Did I tell you I’m in love with your soul?”
When the realtor called with the good news — “It’s yours!” — I sent flowers. Although a spark of flirtation seemed to have infused our texts, the flowers were strictly in gratitude; I knew I was dealing with a straight girl. I’m stunned when I get her text about my soul.
She invites me to lunch at a nearby restaurant with her visiting grandmother and great-aunt. I am self-conscious with them since I’m wearing a shirt that reveals lot of cleavage, something I’ve seemed to acquire more of during perimenopause. When we head for the dessert bar, she asks me if I like to go to gay bars and says she goes there with her gay guy friends.
Before I move into the condo, we decide to go out. I leave my son with his babysitter, Blanca, and her toddler son at her family house. She is the 19-year-old mom who Raphael complains is taking over the motherly duties that I should be doing. Her family dramas are becoming his but I figure perhaps that is a good distraction from ours. I’ve arranged for him to spend the night just in case I’m late coming back.
The realtor and I meet in the empty condo in the early evening. She suggests we stay here so neither of us has to drive and drink. It feels odd to be here; I am thinking a first date — if that is what it is — should be somewhere romantic. We both seem to know we want something. I believe alcohol might loosen us up but we don’t drink anything. She has a blanket from her car. In the nighttime, the space feels less a refuge and more just chilly, vacant, even lonely. Not like a future family home for Raphael and me, so I decide not to think about that.
She turns on the gas fireplace and sits beside me.
“So, what do you want to know about me?” she asks, before proceeding in a steady, monotone stream: “Relationships aren’t easy for me. I was sexually abused by my grandfather from when I was 7 to when I was 12. My first relationship was with a woman when I was 18. I was crazy about her, but when I returned from a trip to Spain, my feelings were gone. My boyfriend is an older man from Zimbabwe. I’ve been living with him since I was 19.”
Maybe she’s almost done with him, I think. Then she adds, “I’ll never leave him.”
I want to touch her. Badly. I reach out, almost stroking her face.
She says, ”I think we could be friends for a long time, so maybe we shouldn’t do anything.”
“But don’t you want to?” I ask. She looks at me. Surprising myself, I lean over and kiss her. We caress faces … grab hair … I love her curves, the compactness of her body on top of me, and her dark, curly hair falling all over my face.
She has opened the door to a pit, and I jump right in — falling into the craziness of doomed relationships, convinced she will make up for all that I’ve lost.
“Let’s just have fun,” she says. “No one can know.” That hurts, but I don’t want my son to know, either. I’ve promised it will be just the two of us until he’s 18. I only add that we might need another person to help out with the rent at some point, but there will be no more stepmothers. Or stepfathers.
Her office is across from the condo. It is a small office that will later close and I’ll be thankful for that. Oak Knoll is a little street, closer to the grander Lake Boulevard that I will pass frequently. Years later, I will try not to look into the gate and remember myself there, sitting on the stoop sometimes with her, grabbing a few minutes before Raphael came out to see what was taking so long. When we first moved in, the little courtyard, outward-facing doorways and Spanish-tiled middle fountain, which lulls Raphael to sleep at night, make the area look inviting. I imagine a co-op of sorts, but it turns out to be nothing like that. The day we move in we set out our little Mexican patio table in front just as the neighbor had hers out, but she contacts the realtor to tell her we aren’t allowed, only hers, which was “grandfathered in.” From that day forward the neighbor seems to want us out. She begins to complain of noise going up and down our stairs. I worry about having to move … again. Our leasing agent, my love, tells me she’s discussed Raphael and me with the man she lives with, her boyfriend, and the possibility that our neighbor will force us out. Perhaps we could all live together in her big house, she wonders aloud. I am speechless.
Every night after our first time together, she texts, “Te quiero. Te amo. Te necesito. No me dejes.” (I want you. I love you. I need you. Don’t leave me.) “Duerme con los angelitos” (Sleep with the little angels) — every night the last thing we tell each other. I have to change to an unlimited text plan.
We send each other romantic songs. She writes me love notes; she begs me to rip off her shirt and push her against the bathroom wall in her realty office. We are on fire.
Magnetic. Inseparable. Even when we can’t be together, I’m with Raphael or she has some kind of commitment, we are in constant contact. By text. Raphael tells me that I’m appropriating his generation with my constant texting. I don’t tell Raphael that I am in a relationship, but he is fidgety, suspicious around her. When she notices his dark looks at her as he glances back and forth between us, she says she wants to run fast, away. I sit down at night with Raphael and assure him it will just be the two of us. I can’t guarantee I won’t ever be in a relationship but I tell him any future partner won’t live with us. “How about with a man?” he asks. I say, ”No, no one will live with us, no more stepparents.”
Every night after our first time together, she texts, “Te quiero. Te amo. Te necesito. No me dejes.” (I want you. I love you. I need you. Don’t leave me.) I have to change to an unlimited text plan.
One day, I poke around in a part of the bathroom medicine cabinet I hadn’t seen before and find a hair, black and long. I know it must be from the owner’s daughter, the one who killed herself. And that’s when I begin to wonder. What caused her so much pain that she saw no other way out? Could I ever feel that way? It’s creepy but I’m determined to make this place one of refuge, and heal the grief — theirs and mine. Many months later, when I go to the bathroom to sob heavily, away from Raphael, I will feel like I’m letting them down — the spirit of the daughter and her grieving parents.
Though it’s only December and we’ve only just moved in, I am already planning for this summer, to go to Outfest, the LGBT film festival, just as I have always fantasized about, with arm-candy — a hot girlfriend who’s hot for me. She’s more beautiful than any woman I’ve ever been with. She’s my fantasy — tough as nails but with tacones, high heels, feminine to the max but not afraid to get dirty. When I almost burn down the condo by leaving a candle lit, she jumps up onto the counter in her heels and offers reassurance while scrubbing the scorched wall.
She signs her love notes, “Tu chiquita” (your little one). I sometimes sign, “Tu vieja” (your old one). She looks at the wrinkles between my eyes. “Is this what people look like when they’re 50?” she asks as she applies my eye shadow. I’ve started wearing makeup again; she seems to like it. She pampers me, bathes me, washes my hair.
Even Japanese tourists stop to gawk at us, snapping a picture outside a shopping mall where we are sitting one day. She holds my face with one hand, intently applying new makeup she’s trying out on me. What are they saying about us in Japanese, I wonder? Maybe, “Aren’t they sweet? Look — two California lesbians.”
She adores me, showers me with besitos — little kisses — but says we can’t be together because of my son. She’d want me all to herself and won’t let me neglect him the way her mom neglected her. I don’t plan to do that but I am relegating more of Raphael’s care to the series of young women who have supplemented for me when I wasn’t available. The latest one, Melissa, is skeptical of my new relationship but she is a tutor, a mentor, a buddy of sorts for Raphael when I can’t be.
Raphael is preparing for his bar mitzvah in May. The rabbi has distilled a bizarre Torah portion about “what to do when your wife is unfaithful” to the concepts of trust and vulnerability, and Melissa, Raphael and I have many discussions about what that means to us. I tell Raphael that perhaps he and I open our hearts too easily and he says, “Mom, you should open your heart again … if you don’t you’ll miss out on a lot in the world.” And I have opened my heart. Sometimes Raphael hears me sobbing; I lock myself in my bathroom. This small condo has three bathrooms. He bangs on the door; the less present I am, the more fearful he is.
I tell mi chiquita, “If you’re really in love with my soul, you should know that it’s the soul of a mother.” She claims the soul she loves is me alone.
Her boyfriend has a teenage daughter, but she is not interested in being a stepmom. He didn’t tell her about his daughter until several years into their relationship. I can’t stop thinking about my stepdaughter, Sabrina; she is still a phantom limb. I miss the feel of her about me. I can still feel her hand in mine from years ago, the fierceness of our bond. My lover tells me to let Sabrina go. “You don’t need any more problems,” she says when Sabrina starts to cut herself and is admitted on a 72-hour psych hold for suicidal thoughts.
You might wonder why I didn’t run. But there are times that I am so desperate for her love that sometimes I wish my son was already grown and gone — something I never thought I’d feel. I lost six pregnancies before finally having him.
When my son goes to Obama’s inauguration with his dad, she takes me to Hawaii. Before we leave, I accidentally meet her live-in boyfriend and reality intrudes. He shakes my hand and tells me he’s heard a lot about me and my son, Raphael. I tell her that when we get back, we can’t be in a relationship anymore. It seems only right to tell her before she takes me to Hawaii.
On Kauai, we dance in our hotel room, watching the new first couple at the inaugural ball. She decides to get drunk. After half a glass of wine, she looks less buttoned-up. She empties the bottle and looks positively reckless — wild, snarling, yet bereft — like she’s ready to wail and make passionate love to me at the same time.
We come back and she tells me it’s impossible to be “just friends.” I feel adored … yet desperately alone. She goes back to her big house with her boyfriend; I feel like there is something precious we have discovered out of the wreckage but it slips through my fingers.
I tell my chiquita that, when we met, I thought I was at bottom — alone, broke, almost 50. The recession hit my public relations business hard. The real estate crash, attorney’s fees and my ex’s forged checks prevented me from recovering any of the money I had put into our family home. When I am going out of my mind with legal documents — for loan modification, dissolution of domestic partnership and, the ultimate defeat, bankruptcy — she is there to comfort me.
She’s having financial struggles, too. Although she helps others get loan mods, she can’t help herself. “It’s just bad timing for us,” she says. She tells me repeatedly why “it” might not work out for us. Finances, my teenage son, her fear that our love might vanish at any moment. My age.
Safe and adored, in danger, desperately alone is how I feel with her — a potent and addictive combination. “I’ll be there for you, always. We’ll be together. Just be patient, “ she soothes me. And later, “I just don’t know why love goes away.”
In her I see a miracle that will save me from the depths of despair and make all the losses okay. She’s felt dead for years, and I’ve come knocking, unleashing an unquenchable desire.
I still hold out hope that we will each go off and fix our lives, then come back together. But, like the California real estate market, I haven’t hit bottom yet.
When my friend from the Bay Area visits, her teenage son is impressed. “Wow, Carla has a HOT girlfriend!” He also tells his mom, “Carla’s too skinny now.” I just keep losing weight. Food makes me nauseous.
When she sleeps with me she likes to sleep on top of me. One night we dream the same dream … about sleeping together. But we are sleeping apart that night. We have only spent all night together in Hawaii.
Safe and adored, in danger, desperately alone is how I feel with her — a potent and addictive combination.
Finally, she tells me what I’ve longed to hear: She will stay with me overnight, and in the morning she’ll tell her boyfriend that she is gay and doesn’t want to be with him anymore. I feel I’m saved. I also feel nervous — it’s a lot of responsibility — what about my son?
In the morning, she goes home and tells the boyfriend. He reads scriptures to her and says that if she chooses me, he’ll take the house, which she’d put in his name a long time ago although it had been bought with her down payment. He says he’ll kick her out — along with her mom, her grandma and her three dogs. The same day she comes out to her mom and also tells her about the incest. It turns out her mom has known, but doesn’t want to talk about it.
Later, she writes to the boyfriend, “Ever since I was little and my grandfather told me to be a good girl while he raped me, I’ve tried to please my family. I am in love with Carla. But I will probably stay with you forever since I don’t want to disappoint them.”
She had tried to break up with him before she even moved in with him, over 15 years ago. He threatened to kill himself. She would just lie there and count while he pounded on top of her, going somewhere else, like with her grandfather. But she can’t bring herself to leave. Being a good girl means staying. She’s used to him, she says. He takes care of her mother and grandmother and sometimes her sister and nephew. He washes their cars, buys their groceries and cooks their meals. And now that they finally got over her living with a black, African man who is so much older than her, they adore him, she tells me.
Where is the rage, I wonder?
She cannot bring herself to move out but tells me she has moved downstairs. One day when I’m at her house, I find her blow-up mattress gone from the room where she says she is sleeping now. Later, she says that she is not sure why she moved back upstairs. She begs me not to leave her, but she won’t leave him. “I’m stuck,” she tells me.
One day, we visit another condo in the same complex that has been foreclosed. It looks like the last inhabitants just ran out, leaving the toilet paper unraveled, a single sock, wrinkled dress shirt on the doorknob, unwashed dishes, all the detritus of a life in desperation, but what happened, I wonder? Like the daughter who committed suicide in our condo, like my own unblended family, how did their life change so drastically?
Later that summer I’ll go with her, another close friend and Raphael to see Al Green at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona. “Let’s Stay Together” seems meant for us. On the way home we drop her off at her big house in Sierra Madre. “Who does she live with here?” asks Raphael, dumbfounded. When I explain that she, her mom, her grandma when she visits from Mexico and her “ex”-boyfriend live there, he just says, “That’s so lame.” Even though he likes her now, and later will tell me I had a chance for a hot girlfriend once and blew it, I know that I don’t want him to have our relationship as an example.
I decide that I don’t want my son to see me so unhappy again. I send him to his dad’s while I stay in bed — crying and unable to eat. I believe that this depth of sorrow is from her, but it comes from loss piled upon loss, starting long before she came into my life. She is just the catalyst. I’ve heard of mothers who can’t get out of bed, but I never imagined being one of them. Now that Raphael is gone for the week, I can let go.
She begs me not to leave her, but she won’t leave him. “I’m stuck,” she tells me.
She uses her rental-agent key to let herself in. She comes upstairs and drags me out of bed. “You have to let me go. I’m not healthy,” she tells me, while begging me not to leave her. Finally, I push her away. I tell her I can’t do tragic love. I have to get out of bed, and I can’t depend on her to drag me out. I’m dazed and heartsick but I am realizing that she is not the way up.
My son starts doing the cooking. He serves me a hot banana-nut muffin with cinnamon, butter and brown sugar melted inside, and I start to regain my appetite. I do the dishes, listening to “Here Comes the Sun,” and I begin to see a glimmer. While this isn’t the life I had planned, it could work.
My family and close friends help me pull myself up, and little by little I realize I’m going to survive.
When my son is ready to start high school, it’s time to move on. I imagine the realtor entering the condo with her buttoned-up look, walking easily in her high heels, speaking in her perky realtor voice — where our love began — and finding it empty.
We move into a smaller apartment in South Pasadena. The beautiful manager brings me homemade brownies. My son looks at us and says, “Mom, don’t even go there.”
* * *
Carla Sameth is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narrative.ly, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun and La Bloga. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High which originally appeared in Narrative.ly, was also selected for Longreads.com’s “Five Stories on Addiction.”
Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She helps others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl in the probation/juvenile detention camps. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now 20 years old.